Suggestions: The Weavers Way Data Index

Norman Weiss, Weavers Way Purchasing Manager

Greetings and thanks for writing. As usual, suggestions and responses may have been edited for brevity, clarity and/or comedy. In addition, no idea, concept, issue, remark, phrase, description of event, word or word string should be taken seriously. This also applies to the previous sentence.

Some fun facts from Weavers Way data (based on sales reports from April 1 to May 12, 2018, and yes, this format is ripped off from Harper’s Index): 

  • Total number of individual products sold: 17,325
  • Total quantity of products sold (by each and by pounds for per-pound items): 937,523
  • Total quantity of products sold that were pounds of bananas: 29,681
  • Total quantity of products sold that were bagels: 24,106
  • Total number of vendors purchased from: 512
  • Total number of items sold that the quantity was one: 2,530
  • Total number of the 17,325 individual products that were Pet products: 1,523
  • Total number of the 1,523 Pet products that were for dogs: 667
  • Total number of the 1,523 Pet products that were for cats: 383
  • Total number of the 1,523 Pet products that were for chickens: 20
  • Total number of products priced under $3 each or per pound: 3,933

Sales data is reflective of many things — what shoppers are buying, of course, but also how they are paying, what they are eating, the role of non-foods in our stores, how many people have pets and when people shop. Many businesses run on data, and virtually all modern retail systems capture and store data, which is typically aggregated and sent to trade groups and marketers and data analytics companies (Weavers Way does not share any data that can identify shoppers). 

What’s interesting about this is that everyone treats the data as confidential, almost like trade secrets. I’ve always been struck by this — what people are buying to eat is something to be kept secret so some companies can profit from this knowledge. Such is the nature of a competitive market-based food system. 

What seems to be missing in this system is concern for public health. Somewhere in our history, food went from being an open-source hunter-gatherer sharing activity that benefited the community to closely guarded, patent- and trademark-protected competitive enterprises that benefit private individuals, sometimes to the point of extreme wealth. At the cost of . . . what? Less for others with fewer skills and/or resources? Environmental degradation? Animal abuse? Global warming? Political unrest? Huge mono-cropped farms that ultimately threaten the very food supply they are part of?

Of course, anyone can simply stand in line at a supermarket checkout and see what people are buying, or watch what people order in restaurants. Anyone can also walk around a neighborhood on trash day and learn a lot about what food people bought. 

Apparently what is valuable is the accumulation of large amounts of data about what people are buying. I suggest that from now on, since what food you buy is a data point with value, companies should be paying you for that data. Next time you go through checkout at a big store, ask the cashier for your data-share rebate. 

If the cashier looks at you like you’re nuts, point out that your shopping decisions just gave their company something of value, and in fairness you should get something back. They might offer you a frequent shopper card or loyalty card or extra coupon or something, which you can then use to save a little money on items they’ve decided to stock and price based on everyone else’s past shopping behavior, and track your purchases even more, so the cycle of secrecy and competition can continue unabated, with winners and losers.

Such is our current food system. And don’t get me started on the farm bill that was just voted down in Congress.

suggestions and responses:

s: “What happened to Weavers Way pickles?”

r: (Norman) Our supplier basically told us we were too small an account for them to make the pickles anymore. We did some checking around for other suppliers but haven’t found another company that could accommodate us. We’ll bring them back if we find another supplier.

s: “How can I get food from my iPhone?”

r: (Norman) This is an undocumented feature. There is a little-known app called Birdbeak that came with ios 11.3.12 that, when location services and notifications are turned on, will use the iphone’s Bluetooth radiation to identify edible berries when the phone is within about 25 feet of a berry plant. You still have to pick the berries yourself, although there are portable mini-drones available to perform this function. (Some farmworkers find this objectionable. In early 19th-century England, these anti-technology workers would have been labeled Luddites.) Note that the drones are exclusively available through Apple; beware of Chinese and Korean knockoffs, which will void the Apple warranty on the Apple-managed portion of your daily life.

s: “The handles keep tearing off the large grocery bags.”

s: “Paper bags are terrible. Is that a strategy to encourage people to bring their bags?”

r: (Norman) We’ll pass that feedback on to our supplier. Ideally most shoppers would be bringing their own bags, but we know that doesn’t always happen. We do have reason to suspect Molly in MA pre-tears the bags for certain customers as a form of performance art, plus she enjoys coming to the customer’s assistance and acting all helpful while cursing the powers-that-be that produced the bags.

s: “Was shocked to find out kaffir lime leaf is $220 per pound! Can we have better signage or small pre-packed bags, like we do with saffron?”

r: (Norman) Sorry for confusion. Prices on bulk spice jars are per ounce but our estimating scale is set up for pounds. Usually this is not a problem, as most spices are so light and shoppers buy small fractions of pound, but there are a few items that are very expensive — for example, organic mace is $64 a pound, and over in fusti world, organic vanilla extract at $66/lb. (To ward off sticker shock, MA Bulk Manager Luis Cruz has put out a 3/4 full 4-oz. display bottle with a sticker that says: “This is $13 worth of vanilla.) We could switch to labelling the jars by pound but that would create other issues. A basic rule of thumb: $100 a pound is $6.25 an ounce, and an ounce is a lot of powdered lime leaves.

s: “Consider getting low-sodium V-8 Juice. It’s healthy, easy to bring when lobbying in Harrisburg to stop fracking or protest bringing the PECO energy hub to Philadelphia.”

r: (Matt MA) Have you tried the Knudsen low sodium Very-Veggie”? (Norman) Wait, now Suggestion Book is being used to promote someone’s political agenda by relating a branded beverage to a political demonstration? The Suggestion Book is apolitical and will not take a stand on any political issue except the First Amendment, since the Shuttle itself has become somewhat of a throwback revolutionary publication, exemplifying the ongoing use of actual ink on actual paper to form actual sentences as a form of interpersonal communication invented around 1439, so pretty sustainable until the likes of Twitter came along. (Damn iPhones.)

s: “If Provamel non-dairy milks are available in the USA, can we stock them? Or preorder? Yummy!”

r: (Matt MA) Doesn’t look like it’s available from our primary supplier, but I’ll keep an eye out.

s: “Are prices the same in all Weavers Way stores?”

r: (Norman) Yes. When we opened Chestnut Hill, we set up a pricing policy in which the exact same item had to have the exact same price in both stores. Since we’ve opened Ambler, there has been a little discussion about changing the policy but no decision has been made, so currently, for both Co-op and technical (cash-register software) reasons, the same items are sold at the same price in all stores. There are two instances where this may seem to not be the case: One is if a staffer thinks we’re overstocked for some reason (short date, leftover holiday item, item being discontinued and we need the space), he or she might put something on “Manager’s Special” or the like to move it out of one location. The other thing that happens is that items that appear alike really aren’t: Organic cinnamon in one store being compared to conventional in other, or a larger produce package in one store or a 4-ounce chip bag being compared to a same brand and flavor but a 7-ounce bag.